Humor is a funny thing. What one person finds hilarious, another will find mystifying, gross, or even offensive. It’s highly individual and, for me anyway, depends very much on the circumstances. My experiences with David Sedaris are a case in point. My first experience with him was when I read his book Me Talk Pretty One Day more than 10 years ago. Despite Sedaris’s reputation as a brilliant humorist, I didn’t find it particularly funny. I cracked a smile a few times, but mostly I just thought it was mildly amusing and sometimes dull.
A few years after that, I became a fan of This American Life, a radio show to which Sedaris frequently contributes. I really enjoyed his stories on that show, and even laughed out loud at a few of them. His humor is not always of the belly-laugh variety, but he has a great eye for the amusing detail. He also has a tendency to say the not-so-nice things I sometimes think but don’t say—and he doesn’t seem mean-spirited because he’s always willing to make fun of himself. After becoming a fan of Sedaris on radio, I picked up an audio version of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim at the library on impulse, and I loved it. The story “Six to Eight Black Men” (about Christmas customs around the world—emphasizing the Dutch) had me laughing so hard I thought I was going to have to pull over the car when I was listening to it during my commute. With that, I realized that I did like Sedaris’s books, but only to listen to. (I’ve since discovered the same about Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff—meh on paper, wonderful on audio.)
Sedaris’s 2008 essay collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, is a bit darker than some of his others, but it’s still entertaining and includes some nice bits of wisdom about life and death. I’d only heard one the stories before—one in which Sedaris purchases a gadget called a Stadium Pal, an external catheter. His thought was that it would be great on a book tour. (Long plane rides, no problem! No need for a break during a book signing; keep those fans coming.) He discovered that, well, urine smells, even when it’s in a bag taped to your leg. Plus, it turns out that it’s not easy to take a leak while you’re doing something else.
My favorite story was one in which he finally managed to get his partner, Hugh, the perfect Christmas gift. Sedaris is always ready with suggestions for his own gifts, but Hugh likes to be more subtle with his hints, figuring that someone who knows him so well should be able to figure it out. In this story, it worked out perfectly, for Hugh anyway. The gift, an actual human skeleton, ended up taunting David about his own mortality. What I loved about this story is how it packed in so much about relationships and the expectations we have of those we love, along with a message about the inevitability of death—and all couched in a really funny story with a great punch line, delivered in a wonderfully dead pan style.
Other favorites involved his parents’ art collection; the community of spiders that lived in his windowpanes; an outcast neighbor in Normandy; a cooky New York city neighbor; an unpleasant encounter involving a throat lozenge, a sneeze, and a cranky seatmate on an airplane; and the birds that persistently attacked his house after Hugh played a track on a Kate Bush CD that featured birdsong. (I have that one, and now I’m afraid to play it!) The collection is capped off with a long piece on Sedaris’s efforts to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for several months. This multipart essay is almost long enough to be a nonfiction novella, and it’s quite enjoyable.
I’ve learned that Sedaris tends to be an author people get or don’t get. If you get Sedaris, you’ll probably find this collection worthwhile. If you don’t, it probably won’t turn you around. If you’re not sure, I’d suggest starting instead with some of his This American Life stories, just to see which camp you fall in. The Stadium Pal story is in the “Family Physics” episode, and his observations about Dutch Christmas celebrations are in the episode titled “Them.”